Our Sustainable Packaging Framework
Our Sustainable Packaging Framework
Guidelines for Developing the World’s Most Eco-Friendly Shipping Solutions
EcoEnclose has a vision of developing truly sustainable packaging. For us, this means packaging would be circular and regenerative.
While this is an inspiring and guiding vision for us, we recognize the need for a more granular supporting framework to guide our day-to-day decisions about what packaging solutions to offer, which manufacturing partners to work with, and what new solutions to develop.
Every day our customers and various manufacturers reach out, asking us to offer new packaging options.
Last week alone, I received an email about dissolvable plastic packaging, compostable pouches made with cassava and cellulose, and virgin paper mailers. Our sustainable packaging framework provides a straightforward way to evaluate these new inquiries. Many of them - including the three examples shared above - don’t meet our standards. When this happens, we decide not to move forward with them, even if that means losing customers and market share. On the other hand, some innovations arise that clearly and beautifully fit into our framework, such as next-generation paper made with agricultural waste or reusable mailers. When we discover these, we invest heavily in their development, testing, and expansion.
Companies like yours are also trying to make thoughtful decisions and may need support navigating the world of eco phrases - recycled, recyclable, compostable, biodegradable, zero waste, plastic-free and more.
We developed and are sharing this framework to clarify - for ourselves, our partners, and the fantastic companies we get to work with - what we at EcoEnclose mean by “eco-friendly packaging,” why we’ve made the choices we have, and the future we are working towards.
We hope that after you read this, you’ll come away with
(1) an understanding of how thoughtfully and carefully we’ve developed our product lines
(2) the types of solutions you’ll likely see from us in the future as we continue to innovate
(3) the tensions and tradeoffs we consider when it comes to sustainable packaging
(4) ideas for how you can continue to make your shipping strategy as eco-friendly as possible - regardless of whether you are working with another packaging provider or us.
10 Topics That Guide Our Decision Making
Is it made with as much recycled content, and post-consumer waste in particular, as possible?
Reusability and Recyclability
Can it be widely recycled? Can it be reused before it is recycled? Are we doing all we can to maximize the rate at which it gets recycled?
Carbon Neutral and Regenerative Virgin Materials
If virgin materials are necessary, are we making them with inputs that have the lowest possible negative impact on the planet? Are we pursuing opportunities to make them with innovative source materials that can be carbon-neutral or even regenerative over time?
Carbon Emissions and “The Big Picture”
Have we reviewed the solution’s carbon footprint and taken steps to minimize it? Have we assessed the solution’s impact on all nine planetary boundaries and critical issues such as deforestation, soil health, and human health?
Is it made with as little material as possible while still meeting the functional and aesthetic needs of our brands?
Ethical Supply Chain
Are the people who manufacture and ship our packaging treated with dignity and a commitment to ethics?
Evaluation of “The Little Things”
Have we pursued all opportunities to make smaller aspects of the solution as eco-friendly as possible, including adhesives, inks, additives, colorants, release liners, and more?
Is the solution manufactured relatively close to where the packaging will ultimately be shipped?
Do we have documentation across the entire supply chain to verify our data points about the solution? Can we share critical statistics about the packaging with our community so they can make the most informed decisions possible about our packaging?
Can we make the solution better - and more circular - in support of our ultimate sustainable packaging vision? Are these improvements appropriately planned for in our innovation roadmap?
How Each Question Gets Us Closer to Our Vision of Circular, Regenerative Packaging
Maximum Circularity: Recycled Content, Reusability and Recyclability
We prioritize packaging with as much recycled content as possible, emphasizing post-consumer waste. We are on a constant quest to get our products’ material make-up to 100% post-consumer waste.
By utilizing, demanding, and constantly increasing recycled content, we spur demand for what households and companies recycle. This "market pull" is essential in making the recycling process work. We believe businesses and consumers who want to recycle are responsible for prioritizing recycled content in the goods they source and consume.
Using recycled content also reduces carbon emissions, effluents, pollution, and resource extraction.
Recycled content isn't suitable for all packaging, but it works beautifully for eCommerce. Where it can be used, it must be used. When recycled content isn't feasible, we seek virgin inputs made with agricultural waste or inputs certified by schemes and organizations we trust. Read more about our Canopy Pack4Good policy here.
We prioritize easily-recyclable materials, focusing on those that can be recycled back into themselves versus downcycled into a lower-value item.
We look for ways to increase the recycling rates of our product lines.
We recognize that reuse is best and are always looking for ways to increase the one-time and long-term reusability of our packaging.
After reuse, recycling is the best ecological option for a package. Recycling diverts from landfills, which emit harmful emissions and become eternal graveyards of otherwise valuable and usable raw materials.
Recycling has come under recent criticism, but we believe the best path forward is to (1) invest more in recycling and reclaiming infrastructure and (2) buy more recycled content so those investments can be economically viable.
A Note On Compostability
We do not design for compostability. We recognize that composting is another end-of-life option that diverts from landfills, but "compostable" does not necessarily solve plastic pollution. And, as an end-of-life alternative, it is only optimal for organics that can't be recycled, not for eCommerce packaging.
Our conversations with composters have made this clear: all packaging, especially bioplastic packaging, makes their work harder, harms their operations, and degrades their output (compost products being sold.) If an item is recyclable and compostable, recycling is always preferred. The raw materials are more quickly and efficiently converted into something usable. Recycling is better designed to address the contaminants that packaging often has.
The majority of certified compostable synthetic material has not been shown to decompose in a natural environment or a landfill. Outside of compost, these materials behave as plastic does.
We know that "biodegradable" is a term often used loosely. We also recognize that it does not describe an item's end of life.
Something can be biodegradable and not compostable, for example, a block of wood or a burlap sack. Likewise, something can be labeled as compostable and never biodegrade in any natural environment, for example, PLA.
We use the term "biodegradable" to describe items that will decompose in a reasonable amount of time (60-120 days) as litter. We invest in constantly developing naturally biodegradable solutions that will not contribute to plastic pollution in our oceans and lands.
Suppose you are a company seeking solutions that biodegrade in a natural environment. In that case, we encourage you to avoid all plastics - including compostable bioplastics - and stick with paper and other naturally biodegradable solutions.
While our number one focus is to maximize recycled content, we recognize that there are times when recycled content is not technically feasible. Three examples where we see this in our product set are our (1) virgin glassine bags, (2) virgin GreenWrap, and (3) 50% recycled bubble mailers.
We seek short- and long-term ways to be as ecologically thoughtful as possible in these situations.
For example, concerning our virgin glassine bags:
1. We ensure the virgin paper is made from certified sustainably sourced trees to help minimize how directly this source material impacts deforestation. It is important to note that certified sustainably sourced does not mean the trees come from managed plantations and not old-growth forests. This distinction is why we don’t rely on certified sustainably sourced paper unless virgin inputs are essential.
2. We launched a 100% Recycled Kraft Bag as an alternative to the glassine bag and clear poly bags. This option does not work as inner packaging for all apparel brands, but for any brand that is not relying on bag transparency for their operations, this is a great option. We also offer 100% recycled EcoBands as one other inner packaging option that fits into certain apparel brands’ internal operational needs. Both were designed as alternatives to virgin tree fiber in glassine bags.
3. We are working to introduce recycled content and next-generation agricultural waste fiber as part of our R&D and product innovation roadmap. One 2022 win was to launch an 80% recycled content, 20% wheat straw waste Kraft bag, which several eco-conscious brands are currently piloting.
There are materials we get excited about as we look toward the future. These materials include natural fibers and bio-derived plastics whose source materials are either waste products such as ag or food waste or whose production sequesters carbon, strengthens soils, and improves biodiversity.
We Consider the Entire Lifecycle, Emphasizing
GHG Emissions, Deforestation, Biodiversity, and Soil Health
We recognize that the world faces several distinct and interrelated environmental issues, ranging from water pollution to carbon emissions. The Nine Planetary Boundaries framework does a beautiful job illustrating these.
We recognize that all boundaries are fundamental and critical challenges. Still, ultimately we believe that curbing carbon emissions to reverse climate change is the number one goal and priority of the environmental movement.
As such, EcoEnclose avoids solutions that may address one set of ecological concerns, such as ocean pollution or landfill growth, but would result in higher GHG emissions.
Reducing GHG emissions is one big reason we prioritize recycled packaging. We also love and actively promote our 100% recycled poly mailers, as these are the most carbon-efficient shipping methods. And it is why we've partnered with Cloverly to help offset the impact of shipping your EcoEnclose order to your door and, over time, the impact of more than just shipping.
Rampant deforestation, declining soil health, and the loss of biodiversity are three issues we pay close attention to because of how directly poor packaging choices can exacerbate these.
We recognize that paper packaging strategies are often adopted in a well-intentioned effort to be more sustainable by reducing plastic use. However, these strategies can pose a direct and significant threat to our world’s primary and secondary forests, whose preservation is essential to mitigating climate change, protecting biodiversity, and maintaining a healthy planet.
Given this, we heavily prioritize recycled content and next-gen agricultural waste solutions when developing our paper-based packaging options.
We also recognize that many bioplastics are produced and disposed of in a way that ravages our soil. Many bioplastics are derived from corn, potatoes, sugarcane, sugar beets, cassava, and other industrial crops whose production requires high doses of pesticides, fertilizers, and fuel-intensive machinery, and whose acreage has displaced millions of acres of grassland and forests. Trees are another popular source of bioplastics, whose production directly impacts deforestation.
Finally, “compostable'' bioplastic packaging is wreaking havoc on compost facilities nationwide. The industrial compost we are amending soils with is polluted from the inks, toxins, and adhesives in compostable packaging. Not to mention that certified compostable packaging often does not truly biodegrade in a real-life composting environment.
Compost is reserved for organic matter - food waste, yard waste, animal waste - which brings rich nutrients into our soils when composted and would otherwise decompose in landfills to create methane. Compost should not be the dumping ground for packaging that could be designed for recyclability or reusability instead.
Given this, as we pursue bioplastic solutions, we seek innovations that:
- Can be readily and widely recycled and are not designed for compostability.
- Don't degrade and displace our soil, lands, and waterways.
- Don't require extensive fossil fuels for production.
True Sustainability Runs Deeper Than Recycled Content, Recyclability,
Reusability, and Minimization of Broader Environmental Footprints
Huge boxes for tiny products, surrounded by plastic air pillows - this move is for companies that prioritize cost reduction and operational efficiency above all else.
Our mantra is different. Sustainable packaging means minimizing material and sizing packages right, so you're not shipping a bunch of air.
1. We take the time to produce a custom box for every shipment out our door, so your package is delivered without excessive void fill or extra space.
2. All of our boxes are custom cut to your specific dimensions. And we give you free samples so you can ensure the size is perfect before placing your order.
3. We offer many sizes in our mailers, so you can hopefully find the one that perfectly fits your products.
4. We offer our products in small bundles and large cases. This way, you can more easily stock a variety of mailer sizes rather than fitting all of your shipments in a one-size-fits-all package.
We have primarily chosen to work with domestic partners whose eco-values align with ours.
One of the main reasons we have prioritized domestic manufacturing is that it is far easier for us to visit, tour, verify, and collaborate with domestic partners. We’ve been able to audit their facilities and working conditions and can readily learn how well workers are being treated and paid.
In the instances where we manufacture overseas, either because the capabilities only exist overseas or because the packaging solutions need to be delivered to an overseas facility, we review documentation that confirms manufacturing plants have been audited and are committed to fair treatment of workers.
There are a lot of small or hidden components to a package that can go unnoticed. So our innovation efforts aren't just on the piece of the packaging itself - they address the little things as well, making them more carbon efficient, recycle-friendly, and regenerative over time.
We were the first to introduce the Algae Ink print option, a water-based black ink whose pigment is made with algae cells rather than petrochemicals. We use water or soy-based alternatives when Algae Ink isn't an option.
Release liners for stickers and shipping labels are something end consumers don't even see. But they have historically always been made with virgin, silicone-coated paper. We introduced the first-ever label line with a 100% recycled, uncoated, and curbside recyclable liner. Our stickers and labels also feature adhesives that are "Recycle Compatible," meaning they allow for a more seamless separation of sticker facestock and the paper package substrate during the recycling and re-pulping process.
These are just a few ways we analyze and improve the "little things" by our broader framework. We are by no means perfect in this area. Still, this mindset and focus have led to a long roadmap of future product improvements we are investing in - many of which the vast majority of brands and consumers won’t even see. Still, we will know these improvements are bringing us closer to circularity.
We work to manufacture our goods as close to their shipping destination as possible, with facilities whose operations and standards align with our ecological commitments.
Most of our goods ship from our warehouse in Colorado, so we have built out a largely US-based manufacturing network. Why ship from halfway around the world when you can manufacture domestically and ship more efficiently?
In addition to transportation efficiency and the lower emissions and energy usage from minimizing this transportation, we recognize that the upstream environmental impact (part of our Scope 3 emissions) represents a large portion of our company’s footprint. What most packaging providers consider their “supply chain” is, to us, a “supply network” of true partners who are critical in our quest to improve the sustainability and ethics of our packaging constantly.
We work with manufacturers who have made commitments to emissions reductions, fair labor standards, and responsible resource consumption. Working with US manufacturers also ensures that the workers bringing our products to life are compensated with a living wage. It also means our products are made with recycled inputs from the US, helping to bolster our domestic recycling chain.
Across all of our partners, including the small set that isn't North American, we look to work with those who can communicate their sustainable actions and, where relevant, can verify them with certifications. For example, our recycled poly-based partner is an active member of the Sustainable Packaging Coalition and the Association of Plastic Recyclers.
Our manufacturing partners are core to our ecological progress, and they are vetted accordingly.
We know that the EcoAllies we work with care intensely about their product and packaging decisions. It's not enough to toss out simple phrases or icons to describe the sustainability of our products.
So we only offer solutions after we have taken steps to get clear documentation about source materials, recycled content levels, recyclability, and supply chain ethics.
Then, we give you all the information we can on our website and in our Bill of Materials, including
- Recycled content levels and the post-industrial versus post-consumer ratio
- Country of manufacture
- Printing ink and adhesive specifications
- Whether or not materials have been treated with chemicals in the manufacturing process
- End-of-life options
- Detailed research to back up our sustainability framework
This level of transparency (1) pushes us to improve our products constantly and (2) allows you to make decisions that align with your sustainability framework.
We have found that over 95% of the questions about our packaging are addressed through our Bill of Materials. However, some specific details of our packaging are either proprietary to us or proprietary to our R&D and technology partners.
Therefore, there are some instances where highly nuanced details of our packaging can only be made available after a Non-Disclosure Agreement is signed.
There is no such thing as “sustainable packaging” - yet.
We fully recognize this, and though we are proud of our solutions, we also acknowledge how far we are from our ultimate vision of truly circular packaging.
We regularly review and audit our solutions, identifying opportunities to make them better and more circular. We also look beyond our current solutions, reviewing emerging technologies and materials.
When opportunities align with our long-term vision, we invest our resources aggressively, working as hard as possible to commercialize these options and accelerate how quickly they are brought to our passionate EcoAlly community.
Got input, feedback, or disagreements? Please share them here! We are always looking to hear other perspectives, learn, and evolve- especially given how rapidly this space advances.
It is essential to note that many sources are biased. Organizations like The American Plastics Council, American Forest & Paper Association, and Hemp Industries Association have a vested financial interest in consumers believing their material or product is an ecological superhero. EcoEnclose is materials agonistic; we are not tied to any one packaging solution or type of material. As such, we seek out sources with as little bias as possible but ultimately read all of the information out there, looking for consistent facts across them to try to tease out what is “true” versus what is a motivated, self-supporting argument.
Our Framework In Action
Ultimately, a framework is only valuable if it helps a person or company make decisions, particularly those that are difficult and complex. Here are a few examples of how our Sustainability Framework has helped us make some hard choices.
Facestock Options and Adhesives of Our Stickers
Introducing the Zero Waste Liner was a no-brainer. A 100% recycled, curbside recyclable release liner (in a land of silicone coated, virgin, unrecyclable liners) is a clear sustainable step forward.
Then we were faced with the question of facestocks. We started by only offering 100% recycled, uncoated paper facestocks. Uncoated paper is recyclable with paper and naturally biodegradable. Then we learned that many of our customers were adhering the stickers to their poly mailers. When paper stickers stick to poly mailers, they are a minor contaminant for reclaimers (and if all of their inputs contained paper stickers or labels, the contamination would become problematic).
This led us to consider a BOPP facestock as well. Unfortunately, BOPP facestock is currently virgin material, which made this a difficult decision for us. Ultimately, however, we realized how important it was to offer an option whose end-of-life matches that of our poly mailers. Therefore, we now offer BOPP alongside our uncoated paper facestock option.
Then came the question of adhesives. Do we focus on cost, recycle compatibility, or certified compostable? When talking to our customers, many of whom were intrigued by a compostable-specific adhesive, this seemed like a hard decision. However, when looking at this question through the lens of our framework, it was a much easier decision - go with the adhesive that is as compatible with the recycling process as possible and has enough tack to adhere to 100% recycled boxes and mailers.
The good news for folks looking for compostability is that adhesives make up such a small percent of an item's overall weight that they rarely affect the overall item's ability to compost. But when faced with a tradeoff, the choice to prioritize recycle-compatibility was clear.
Water-Activated Tape vs Cello Tape
EcoEnclose carries water-activated and two types of pressure-sensitive tape, including one certified compostable with a cellulose facestock - our cello tape. When asked which one a company should use, we almost always recommend our water-activated tape first.
This recommendation surprises some people, especially since one of our water-activated tape options is fiber-reinforced and therefore is not biodegradable or compostable.
We prefer water-activated tape because it produces a significantly stronger bond than pressure-sensitive tapes. This feature means you can use less tape (reduction of overall materials), and there is less chance of a box being damaged or tampered with in transit.
Additionally, while you can almost always recycle boxes with their tapes, water-activated tape adhesive and facestock are more friendly to the paper repulping process than our cello tape. This is because the fiberglass in the tape is screened out when the boxes are repulped.
Carrying Recycled Paper and Recycled Plastic Options
There has been an exciting move among companies to reduce plastic use, and some have set goals to eliminate it. Yet, we are sometimes asked why we carry any recycled plastic packaging, given that our framework focuses on "readily recyclable" and recognizes the importance of "naturally biodegradable." We have found that no one material perfectly meets all elements of our sustainability framework.
Our paper options are recycled, curbside recyclable, and naturally biodegradable. But our recycled poly options all have a lower carbon footprint than their paper mailer counterparts. Additionally, we recognize that the demand for recycled paper is already very high. Therefore, our role in creating demand for recycled plastic is more important and impactful than recycled paper. We hope that by carrying recycled poly-based options and pushing our manufacturing partners to keep increasing the recycled content and post-consumer waste percentage, we can help create industry-wide momentum.
Paper Is Our Gold Standard for a "Compostable Mailer"
Our decision not to offer a PLA+BPAT compostable poly mailer is rooted deeply in our sustainability framework - our focus on recycled content and recyclability, domestic and well-audited supply chains, and our concerns about corn and designing for compostability.
We know that it would be effortless to start offering a compostable poly mailer and that if we added it to our line, it would be a big boon for business. But every day, we make decisions and run our business in ways that may knock to our bottom line but align with our principles and are the right thing to do for the planet.
When companies come to us asking for a compostable mailer, our response is: We strongly recommend a paper mailer as the only compostable option available right now that meets our sustainability framework. Our paper mailers are 100% recycled, naturally biodegradable (so if they end up as litter, they will decompose and cause minimal harm to nature), curbside recyclable, and could be composted (though composters much prefer you to recycle them).
Stocked Shipping Boxes
Many packaging providers offer a myriad of stock shipping boxes in set dimensions. If we did this, we know we could increase some of our margins, reduce our lead times and perhaps get more sales. But doing this would have two ramifications: (1) Our customers may be much more likely to choose boxes bigger than they need to be, causing them to ship more air and wasted space. (2) We would hold more box inventory, meaning we'd have to expand our warehousing space and the room dedicated to storing stock boxes.
Because the consequences of stocking boxes do not meet our framework, we have decided to continue only producing boxes on demand, based on our customers' sizes and specifications.